‘And children shall return to their borders’

At 3 a.m., May 24, 1991, the phone rang. A man I had never met, Avraham Neguise, was calling me in desperation. Operation Solomon, the miraculous airlift of 14,000 Jews from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was almost complete but Israel was leaving behind 2,500 Jews. The pleas of then chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef to prime minister Yitzhak Shamir didn’t help.

The chief rabbis held that the 2,500 were Jews but the secular prime minister oddly had a higher standard and refused to bring them. Neguise was calling because he had a glimmer of hope that as president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry I could help somehow. But of course there was nothing I could do.

Fast-forward 25 years. Over 50,000 additional Ethiopian Jews have been brought to Israel, primarily because of the relentless determination of Dr. Neguise.

This aliya has been vigorously supported by the Chief Rabbinate, most recently by former chief rabbi Shlomo Amar who visited the Jewish community in Ethiopia in 2002. This support was forthcoming despite allegations that the grandparents or great-grandparents of the olim had actually or nominally converted to Christianity. They have returned to the practice of normative rabbinic Judaism.

Repentant apostates, and certainly their children – who fall into the even more lenient category of tinok ha nishbah – have always been joyfully welcomed back into the Jewish community. Unlike the non-Jewish Russians, virtually all of the 50,000 additional olim willingly completed a conversion under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Nine thousand remain under appalling conditions in Ethiopia. Pursuant to a November, 2015, government decision they were entitled to be brought to Israel over a period of five years; aliya was supposed to commence on March 15. This has not happened.

I recently received a second desperate phone call from Neguise, but this one was personal. He had landed in New York as part of a delegation of Knesset members and his luggage was stolen. Neguise didn’t care about his lost clothing, but he was panicked over the loss of his tallit and tefillin and asked if I could replace them before morning so that he wouldn’t lose out on the mitzva for even one day.

What a contrast to the allegations contained in an article by JNi.Media, posted in the American Jewish press, which I had read only half an hour before. (Similar pieces have appeared in Hebrew). The news agency stated that “Some accuse him [Neguise] of collaboration with the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People (CMJ), a missionary organization that was started in the UK in 1809.”

Really? Are Christian missionaries known for their strict observance of the mitzva of tallit and tefillin? Has Neguise – who is Shabbat- and kashrut-observant, and whom I have never seen with his head uncovered – been masquerading for the past 31 years since his arrival in Israel? Did the National Religious Party – on whose Knesset slate Neguise ran six years ago – turn a blind eye to his supposed missionary activities? Of course not. Similarly absurd is the article’s citation from a report by a group called LIBA that many of the 50,000 olim “continue to live in Israel as bona fide Christians and some even do missionary work within the community.” Really? According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 75 percent of children born in Ethiopia (the children of these olim) attend religious schools as opposed to only 20% of Israeli children in the general population.

Do “bona fide Christians” send their children to Jewish religious schools? Do Christians flock to Orthodox synagogues in Israel long after they have made aliya? I choose to believe that the author of the LIBA report simply doesn’t know what he is talking about because the alternative is worse: he knows the truth and has chosen to disregard it. Shouldn’t he have visited Ethiopia at least once before maligning repentant Jews? Our rabbis rightly have regarded such slander severely; one of Rabbeinu Gershom’s takkanot (halachic legislative enactment) was to impose nidui (excommunication) on people who oppressed penitents with words.

The article also quotes journalist Ainao Freda Sanbato, who says Falash Mura are “Christians impersonating Jews,” who are “shipped to the Gondar camps by CMJ.” Now that’s really interesting; CMJ closed up shop in Ethiopia over 30 years ago, a fact that a simple Google search would have revealed. Does Sanbato think ghost missionaries are still active? But while we are spinning out fantasies consider Bnei Akiva, which announced this week that it is opening a branch in Addis Ababa and Gondar. Is Bnei Akiva perpetrating a gigantic fraud on the public? What about Shas ministers Aryeh Deri and David Azoulai (the who has actually visited the camps in Ethiopia)? Did they have sinister motives when they voted for the government resolution? Are they participants in this conspiracy as well? The 9,000 remaining Beta Israel have been shomrei torah u’mitzvot for years. They need to undergo a conversion; Rav Moshe Feinstein held that even matrilineally linked Beta Israel should undergo a giyur le’chumrah, a conversion by reason of doubt; unlike the previous 50,000 olim, the links of the remaining 9,000 to the Beta Israel is only patrilineal and they undoubtedly require a conversion. But like those who have made aliya before them, they will undergo giyur once they arrive in Israel. In fact, if a rabbinic court were possible in Ethiopia, they long ago would have willingly completed their conversions. And according to Rav Feinstein, those Ethiopians who undergo a complete conversion are like all Jews, and one must assist them and support them for all needs of livelihood, both physically and spiritually.

I suffered great anguish because I have heard there are those in Israel who are not drawing them close in spiritual matters and are causing, God forbid, that they might be lost from Judaism. It is obvious that one must draw them close, not only because they are no worse than the rest of the Jews – and because there is no distinction in practical application of the law because they are black – but also because one can say perhaps they are gerim [converts], and included in the mitzva “and you shall love the convert.”

We should give thanks that we live in times Jewish history will judge to be miraculous, times when lost tribes are restored to the Jewish people. We should rejoice that our brethren have returned and not slander the courageous leaders who with God’s help have made this possible.

A past president of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry and a graduate of Yale Law School, the author has advocated on behalf of Ethiopian Jews since his first trip to Ethiopia in 1988.